As part of the Ohio GOP’s ongoing civil war and the attendant primary mudslinging, some candidates have turned to lawsuits to stop their rivals from airing attack ads.
One such lawsuit, brought by Larry Householder, has (accidentally!) pierced Ohio Dark Money’s carefully tended veil of secrecy. The lawsuit revealed the identities of the Washington power brokers pumping money into Ohio’s elections. The revealed persons are all top brass at the American Conservative Union (ACU), with strong ties to the Trump Administration and the NRA at highest echelons. Furthermore, some of the people involved are mixed up in the years-long Russian effort to infiltrate American gun rights groups.
On April 18, Larry Householder filed a lawsuit at the Perry County Court of Common Pleas, claiming that the defendants “published television, radio, and direct mail advertising that falsely claim Plaintiff Householder is under investigation and guilty of criminal activity.” The lawsuit names 14 defendants (plus some John Does), including two SuperPACs: Honor and Principles PAC and Conservative Alliance PAC. Other defendants include Nick Everhart, his employee at Medium Buying, Dillon Lloyd and his media buying company GRP Buying. Plunderbund has reported extensively on Everhart and GRP Buying’s prior shady political dealings.
The ACU-affiliated individuals are Matt Schlapp, Charlie Gerow, Amy Frederick, Alan Gottlieb and Becky Norton Dunlop. The ACU is the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization and is best known for organizing the annual CPAC conference. It appears that Householder named these ACU-affiliated individuals as defendants based on an a NAB document that WINT AM/FM out of Willoughby, Ohio uploaded on March 23, which listed the chief executive officers of the Conservative Alliance as follows:
In the wake of the lawsuit and subsequent press coverage, the ACU told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “Schlapp did not authorize the committee to use his name as a board member. In fact, besides Marston, none of the people listed as board members did so, according to the ACU.” Through a spokesperson, they elaborated: “A terrible fraud has been committed against the people of Ohio, Rep. Larry Householder, and the American Conservative Union. A mysterious and shady organization is deceiving Ohioans by falsely claiming that ACU Board Members are behind these heinous attack ads.”
On April 24, the Conservative Ohio politics blog 3rd Rail Politics advanced the story by publishing a notarized statement from the Spirit Media employee, Carl White, which made the extraordinary claim that he, on his own initiative, “conducted additional research, and believing [he] had contacted the proper group, amended the NAB documentation to include additional committee information… [He] believed the information to be true and correct. It was not.”
White’s mea culpa regarding the executive officer disclosure is bizarre and does not withstand even a modicum of scrutiny. Here are the three main refutations of White’s assertions:
1. The ACU is known to traffic in dark money and to work with Ohio Dark Money groups. Plunderbund previously covered the case of Now or Never PAC’s involvement in the 2012 Ohio Senate election. The Federal Election Commission fined Now Or Never PAC, the ACU and other conspirators for their involvement in a straw donor scheme in which the ACU served as a pass-through entity to funnel $1.71 million dollars from Government Integrity LLC (GI LLC) to Now Or Never PAC, while taking a $90,000 cut of the funds. Former Josh Mandel aide Joel Riter was closely associated with Government Integrity LLC at that time. As prior reporting from Plunderbund has demonstrated, Riter is also associated with Nick Everhart and his ad buying company GRP buying, which are both defendants in the Householder lawsuit.
2. Sponsor Identification, or the paperwork and process that broadcasters follow to properly identify the parties that have paid for advertisements, is heavily regulated by the FCC. Noncompliance is subject to admonishment from the FCC and, very often, stiff fines. Plunderbund consulted Randy Malloy, the owner of local Columbus radio station CD102.5, to inquire about his radio station’s process for ensuring FCC compliance when airing political ads.
Malloy said that every year they receive an enormous compliance guide from the Ohio Association of Broadcasters (OAB), and because FCC regulations change every year, they follow the book step by step when filling out political advertisement paperwork. He said CD102.5 takes FCC compliance very seriously because the FCC has the power to revoke a radio station’s license.
According to Carl White’s LinkedIn profile, he served as the Director of Clear Channel Ohio Political Networks from 1991 to 2014, where his duties included FCC Compliance, Public File Maintenance and Third Party liability. Contrary to the narrative encouraged by the ACU and White himself, he is one of the foremost experts on FCC political advertisement compliance in Ohio.
If the ACU-affiliated individuals were in fact members of Conservative Alliance’s executive committee as stated by the NAB form, White was following FCC compliance best practices by listing them. In January 2017, the FCC “issued an order clarifying its public file rules for political ads… On sponsorship identification, the FCC focused on third-party ads, requiring that broadcasters make an inquiry as to the complete set of executive officers or the complete board of directors of any sponsor.”
Plunderbund contacted David Oxenford, a lawyer who specializes in broadcast law and writes for The Broadcast Law Blog. He explained that “the [Trump administration] stayed the effect of this ruling as it was issued…just before the administration changed. I am told informally that the ruling will be revisited by the FCC shortly…it would not surprise me if there is a very similar decision with some of the ambiguities in the original decision clarified.”
Basically, under Obama, the FCC issued an order requiring radio stations to list all officers of an ad-buying entity (as White did on the form in question). The Trump administration stayed the order temporarily, but industry experts expect that Obama era rule will be restored and enforced, with some modifications in the future. It’s unsurprising that an FCC compliance expert like White would report all board members out of an abundance of caution in an uncertain regulatory environment.
3. Finally, White has his own connections to the ACU. White’s LinkedIn profile lists his current occupation as President at Braintrain. It describes BrainTrain as “a full-service marketing, creative services and public relations firm, specializing in campaign development, execution and custom creative imaging. We offer full representation, creative services, media negotiation and placement, and political strategy/campaign planning. All mediums and markets throughout the country.” Campaigns here also means “issue campaigns” as White boasts that he was “an integral part of the campaign to bring casino gaming to Ohio,” a lobbyist driven initiative. Former ACU’s President David Keene’s wife is named Donna Wiesner Keene. She is the CEO at a company called BrainTrain, which according to her own bio is “a business specializing in marketing and communicating political ideas and projects. BrainTrain works with executives and lobbyists to propel ideas toward policy-makers and ordinary citizens.”
Let’s play a game and assume that a group of people currently being sued for defamation may not be entirely forthright and honest. Let’s assume that the original paperwork was correctly filled out when it named the ACU-affiliated individuals as being associated with Conservative Alliance PAC. Then let’s assume that White took the fall for the inconvenient disclosure because he is business partners with Donna Wiesner Keene. If you make the following assumptions, then you must confront the possibility that David Keene and Alan Gottlieb (listed as an “at large” member) are power players in the Ohio Dark Money scene. Both men are also key figures in the unfolding investigation of how American gun rights groups, like the NRA (of which Keene is a former President) and the Second Amendment Foundation (of which Gottlieb is the current President) were infiltrated by the Russian government and may have been used as a conduit to funnel foreign money into American elections.
Danielle Harlow is a Social Scientist living in Columbus, OH, who won a game of Jeopardy! once. Follow her on twitter at @tiberisdonors.